20 Minutes With: Halo Top

Doug Bouton grew up in small-town Virginia with big-time dreams – he wanted to be a shortstop for the New York Yankees, but unfortunately ended up being a lawyer. “Working at a law firm was pretty much a nightmare for my personality,” described Bouton. “I need control over my own schedule and the freedom to do things how I want to do them. I needed to do something entrepreneurial if I ever wanted to be happy in my career.”

He went into business with Justin Woolverton after meeting at a lawyers’ basketball league in LA.  Halo Top was born in a “eureka” moment after Woolverton bought a Cuisinart ice cream maker and ran his recipe through it. “Justin wasn’t thinking about starting a business. He just wanted an ice cream that he could eat an entire pint of and not feel bad about it.”

Woolverton brought in Bouton in early 2013, when the business was getting to be too much for one person. The two have never looked back, particularly born entrepreneur Bouton. “I will say, looking back, even if Halo Top had failed, Halo Top’s worst day was significantly better than my best day at the law firm.”

Neither Woolverton nor Bouton had much experience in the food industry, but as outsiders, they knew what was missing from the market. “It’s ice cream, first and foremost,” warned Bouton about the health benefits of Halo Top. “A full pint only contains 280 to 360 calories with 20 grams of protein and very little sugar.” With other ice cream brands containing a thousand or more calories per pint – and a huge amount of sugar – the invention of Halo Top created a new category in the market.

The first step in creating a “healthy” ice cream is cutting the sugar. Halo Top replaces most of the sugar with stevia. “We also get creative and use things like egg whites and skim milk,” said Bouton. Taste buds aren’t always smart, and can’t detect a four percent change in fat levels. This change sounds minimal, but it saves plenty of calories. There’s also a fair amount of air whipped into each pint, meaning that after a pint of ice cream consumers won’t feel heavy and lethargic. All ingredients are high quality, so the taste and texture stay true to a traditional ice cream.

Since its invention in 2011, Halo Top has expanded to 15 countries, with the New Zealand market one of its most recent additions. “New Zealand was at the top of my list because I was looking forward to selfishly taking “business” trips to the countries on my bucket list,” said Bouton. “Now, I’m excited about expanding to South Africa for the same reason.”

Feedback from consumers has been key to Halo Top’s success outside of the US, with Woolverton and Bouton interested in what their fans on the ground have to suggest. “We will see what flavours most New Zealanders want to see and hopefully get them there sooner rather than later.”

Halo Top has gone from strength to strength, from the first cash flow positive moment through to starting their own sub-category in the market, and still outselling well-established, traditional ice cream brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. Woolverton and Bouton have gone from nearly being killed by Halo Top – by breathing in the dry ice fumes they lugged around in their own cars – to being named Food Disrupter of the Year. “It was surreal to be named in Time Magazine’s 25 best inventions of 2017 with the likes of Apple, Tesla, and NASA,” said Bouton.

Between 2015 and 2016, Halo Top’s sales grew by 2,500 percent in a single summer, resulting in the innovative snack becoming a household name. Part of this is due to the brand’s core demographic, millennials who have imprinted Halo Top on the internet.

One contributor to the initial fuss was GQ writer Shane Snow, who famously subsisted on nothing but Halo Top for ten days. Snow realised that by eating five pints of Halo Top a day he could get 120g of protein at the cost of only 1,200 calories a day – the supermodel diet which resulted in him losing 4.5kg.

“We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have such loyal fans who are heavily invested in Halo Top and help to make our community what it is.” The brand’s core demographic is largely millennial, and healthy or “clean” eaters. “They are the voices that we listen to when we are creating new flavours,” he said.

The new flavours are taste tested by Woolverton and Bouton themselves – consistency from the outset. Bouton’s favourite flavour is the limited-edition Peanut Butter & Jelly, a flavour combo he hopes we’ve heard of. “If so, we might have to find a way to get some to New Zealand.”

Flavour suggestions are just one part of the first-class consumer interaction Halo Top has. The company has a playful brand personality, as well as engaging with topics close to its audience’s hearts.

“We’re constantly looking to find ways to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Bouton of the brand’s ethical philosophies. The company has also seen an increased demand for vegan ice creams and is proud to have non-dairy offerings. “Statistics show there has been a 600 percent increase in people identifying as vegan.” Halo Top is more than happy to cater to this rapidly growing demographic and became the best-selling non-dairy pint in the US soon after its release this year. Bouton hints it might turn up in New Zealand before long.

The entrepreneurial Bouton confesses it’s hard to see past five months, let alone five years – everything’s moving so quickly. “At one point in time, Coca-Cola was a start-up company that sold a soda beverage,” said Bouton, suggesting his brand wouldn’t mind becoming an iconic multi-national brand. “It’s fun to think about that opportunity,” he admitted. “For now, we’ll just keep working hard and having fun, and hope that the rest will take care of itself.”